CSU is requiring 12,000 people to be COVID-19 tested weekly. Here’s how it works.

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Erik Lindblom walked into the Colorado State University recreation center mid-morning on Feb. 1. He was greeted by a woman donning protective equipment who asked if he had known exposure to COVID-19 or was experiencing symptoms. 

After answering her questions and making his way through the screening station, Lindblom was on his way out, having completed his COVID-19 screening for the week in less than 10 minutes. As a freshman student living on campus and taking in-person classes, Lindblom is required to complete these weekly screenings. 

In January, CSU announced new COVID-19 screening guidelines for the spring semester that require about 12,000 students, faculty and staff to be screened each week for COVID-19. The number of screenings is set to increase — potentially reaching 25,000 — in coming weeks as the university adds upperclassmen, professional and graduate students, and more faculty to the list of those who must be screened, said Marc Barker, co-chair of CSU’s pandemic preparedness team.

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A woman waits in line for mandatory COVID-19 screening on the Colorado State University campus as the university begins limited in-person and hybrid learning in Fort Collins, Colo. on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. Colorado State University will shift all instruction back to remote learning following a delayed spring break April 12-16.

Screening thousands of people in a safe and efficient way was no easy task, but it was one university leaders felt was necessary. 

In the fall, Barker said CSU was dependent on nasal tests and processing results at other labs, so the school narrowed its focus to detecting cases among students living on campus. 

“We knew that there were a whole lot of people that were interacting with our campus that weren’t in those groups that our limited scope allowed us to screen,” said Barker. But with its new screening that uses saliva tests, Barker said CSU is testing everyone who “interacts with campus.”

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Barker, who also serves as assistant vice president for safety and risk services at CSU, said the university now has the capacity to screen 15,000 people each week by using its own tests.

Previously, the university relied mostly on wastewater testing to identify cases or outbreaks, said Barker, but with added saliva testing and the continuation of wastewater testing, efforts have expanded and the university has “doubled down” on surveillance. 

Students, faculty and staff required to get screened are in and out of the gym, on average, in about five and a half minutes, Barker said. There are 25 collection sites set up in the gym, which was set up with the help of local health officials to abide by distancing requirements. 

The test, completed by spitting into a collection tube, is processed on CSU’s campus, which Barker said allows for results to be turned around in just 24 hours. If someone tests positive on the screening test, a mobile team is deployed to provide a nasal test to confirm the positive result; this result is processed by a lab in Boulder. 

Barker said the university is able to conduct the saliva exam, issue isolation and quarantine instructions and receive results from the subsequent nasal test within 48 hours.

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The recreation center is currently the main screening location on CSU’s campus, though Barker said the university is opening mobile testing sites that will be strategically placed in high-traffic areas across campus.

CSU President Joyce McConnell said even though they saw strong results in the fall, the university was motivated to increase testing efforts by the growing presence of COVID-19 variants. 

“We wanted to make sure that we were doing everything, mobilizing every resource we had to keep everyone as safe as we did in the fall,” said McConnell, adding she felt “really good” about the testing this semester.

A healthcare worker places a vial in a container at a Larimer County COVID-19 testing site at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.

But testing thousands of people daily has its challenges. 

“The staffing is herculean,” Barker said, noting that 45 people have been brought on to assist with testing and screening. At the beginning of the fall semester, he said CSU’s contact tracing team had two full-time employees. It now has 25. 

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McConnell said that getting the necessary supplies and equipment to conduct 12,000 saliva tests has also been a challenge as the supply chain is working to serve testing sites across the country. 

The CSU COVID-19 site lists those required to screen as: 

  • “All students living in university housing
  • All students living in a fraternity or sorority house
  • All freshman and sophomores in one or more face-to-face class or lab course
  • All staff who are regularly, physically on a CSU campus or other university grounds in Larimer County, this includes staff involved in research
  • All faculty, instructors and graduate teaching assistants who are teaching a face-to-face or lab course who are regularly, physically on a CSU campus or other university grounds in Larimer County”

In addition to the mandatory screens, any student or employee can be screened “as often as they wish,” according to the university. 

Camille Arisman, a freshman who lives on campus and is required to test weekly, said she doesn’t mind taking time to get tested if it’s for the good of the community and keeps cases down. 

People line up for mandatory COVID-19 screening on the Colorado State University campus as the university begins limited in-person and hybrid learning in Fort Collins, Colo. on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. Colorado State University will shift all instruction back to remote learning following a delayed spring break April 12-16.

Across the country, outbreaks on college campuses have been a major point of concern. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with local health departments, have warned of community spread occurring commonly in younger age groups. In Colorado, about 22% of COVID cases have been in people 20-29. Data from CSU and Larimer County show that CSU-affiliated cases have made up almost 12% of the county’s infections, as of Feb. 1.

Colorado State University was recognized nationally for its fall COVID-19 strategy, which relied primarily on wastewater testing of residence halls to detect the virus. But saliva tests are not totally new to CSU.

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Mark Zabel, a professor of microbiology, immunology and pathology at CSU, developed the saliva test that’s now being used. The test is based on a similar test created by a CSU alumnus at Yale University. In about a month, Zabel developed a saliva test of his own that CSU began to use later in the fall semester.

Zabel’s test is different from Yale’s as it uses a pooling method rather than a direct test, meaning it allows multiple samples to be tested at once — saving time and money — but still allows for a single sample to be identified within the pool, said Zabel. It is now CSU’s main screening mechanism. 

The new screening protocols, while ambitious, are being received well by the community, Barker said. Lindblom and others in line for tests on Feb. 1 echoed this, saying the university was conducting tests efficiently and in a safe way. Multiple people said the most difficult part about the process was mustering up enough saliva for the test.

For now, the intense screening measures seem to be working. Barker and McConnell said the university’s positivity rate is down from the fall semester. 

Molly Bohannon covers education for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @molboha or contact her at mbohannon@coloradoan.com. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.